Nahko and Medicine for the People at The Catalyst, by Joshua Huver
Nahko and Medicine For The People  (photo: Joshua Huver)

Last weekend on Saturday October 22 and Sunday October 23, Nahko and Medicine for the People brought their Hoka: A Call To Action tour to The Catalyst in Santa Cruz. Using the music and the opportunity of the stage to petition the crowd for social and environmental justice has become the norm for the Portland-based group.

Joining Nahko on stage Sunday was long-time band mates Chase Makai on lead guitar, Patricio “Pato” Labarca on bass, and Justin Chittams on drums. Since I last caught Medicine for the People, they have added renowned violinist Tim Snider and a brass section that comprised of regular horn player Max Ribner and special guest trombone player Nicholas Wlodarczyk.

But before anybody took the stage, Nahko and Bay Area activist Joshua Kahn Russell marched through the crowd with a megaphone, chanting and marching from the back of the room to the stage. The pair took the stage ahead of the band and continued a conversation they opened on Saturday. Russell is very closely involved in The Wildfire Project, the Ruckus Society and The Bay Area Solidarity Action Team, and he also is the author of several books on environmental justice.

Hoka: A Call To Action Tour is not an ironic or empty designation for the tour. Both Saturday and Sunday were bookended and featured an intermission with Russell leading a conversation on the indoctrinated inequalities we face in society. With topics ranging from the byproducts of that system (white and male privilege) to systemic organizations around changing that status quo (Black Lives Matter movements) to the abuse of woean and girls in war-torn areas of the world, Russell and Nahko called on the crowd to act as allies to aide each other in recognizing that skin-deep differences ought to be celebrated and shared, not shunned and punished. “We’re here for more than a concert, right?” Russell asked the crowd. “We’re here for a movement!”

Nahko followed up: “Tonight, a part of our mission is to awaken the water within you, how does that sound? But before we go any further, we’re going to get some more allies up here.”

Once Medicine For The People took their positions on stage, they dove right into the medicine — for the uninitiated, that is the music.

Most of the songs throughout the evening came from a celebration of the tour’s namesake album, Hoka. Hoka is Nahko and Medicine for the People’s third full-length record, and first on SideOneDummy. The two opening tracks, “Directions” and “San Quentin” were both early staples off of the new record and pushed in anticipation of the album’s drop earlier this year, but they are also full of the meaningful awareness that Nahko and his band have been calling out to everyone in every direction.

Nahko and Medicine for the People at The Catalyst, by Joshua Huver

“Risk It,” the first of a handful of songs that appear on the 2013 debut album Dark As Night, speaks to the realization of a spiritual deficiency in oneself and led into “We Shall Overcome,” another Hoka tune that focuses on action and reconciliation.

Nahko continued that message of forgiveness without forgetting and dedicated “Runner” to “Nature, our great mother,” and allowed the energy to carry over into “Great Spirit” which featured an incredible trumpet solo from Ribner. Throughout the lyrics, Nahko expresses self-doubt, but continues to struggle forward and unite the cracks that have divided us as people.

Just about halfway through the set, the band members walked off stage except for Chitty, whom Nahko coaxed down from the drum riser. Chitty was going to play guitar and sing a song — not just any song, Nahko informed the crowd, but a song that Chitty wrote himself. Furthermore, Sunday night in Santa Cruz was the official debut of the song to the public.

Following the successful debut of his song, Russell returned to the stage to continue the conversation of social justice and what each of us as individuals, attending the show, listening to the music on our own and even you reading this, can do to be an ally for others. Saturday’s intermission was a conversation on white privilege and on Sunday that was expanded into a focus on the Black Lives Matter movement.

Throughout Russell’s time on stage, the band played lightly behind him and upon his exit, Snider once again stood bright and tall, performing an incredibly moving violin solo that phased into “Dear Brother,” a new tune that Nahko taught the crowd from the stage.

Two more songs from Hoka, bringing the count for the evening to six of the new songs, brought the energy in the room to a near fever pitch. “Love Letters To God” addresses a choice to give love and reflects on a god figure and further challenges the boundaries of our culture. “We Are On Time,” a song about letting your guard down to let love in, was met with reckless abandon by the crowd that continued through the end of the set.

Nahko and Medicine for the People at The Catalyst, by Joshua Huver

To end the set, Nahko and Medicine for the People revisited Dark As Night and stayed there through the end of the show, with a brief exception. “Budding Trees” and the fan favorite “Aloha Ke Akua” were chosen to close out the set.

For the encore, Nahko appeared on stage solo with his guitar and reflected on the weekend in Santa Cruz with a beautiful rendition of “Blessings” by Chance the Rapper before closing the show with “Manifesto 2.”

Opening the evening was Washington-based quartet Rabbit Wilde. The band looks and sounds like your typical string band, mostly because there is no drummer, but after a few minutes of listening, you’ll realize that there are assorted pieces of a drum kit scattered around the stage for accentuated rhythm.

Ahead of performing a brand-new and unreleased tune that the band recorded to help save music programs in schools, lead vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Miranda Zickler said “this song is about walking the walk when it comes to ethics.” Considering the download cards available at their merch stand are plantable and full of wildflower seed, it’s safe to say they walk the walk, and Nahko recognized.

Catch Nahko and Medicine For The People in December when they stop in San Francisco and Petaluma with Flobots. They will be at The Regency Ballroom in SF on December 2, and at The Mystic Theater in Petaluma on December 4. Somehow they are finding the time to play in Portland on December 3 between the two Bay Area shows.